William Michael Rossetti William Shakespeare.

The complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography online

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woo ; Truepenny, Dame Custance's man ; Madge Mumblecrust, her nurse ;
Goodluck, a merchant, and Dobinet Doughty, his servant ; a Scrivener, very
useful at a time when reading and writing did not come by nature ; and other
minor persons. Gawin Goodluck, instead of the swaggering Ralph, wins the
widow, Custance, and the play ends with the appointment of the wedding.

About fourteen years later John Still, afterwards Bishop of Bath and Wells,
wrote a comedy entitled " Gammer Gurton's Needle." It was a play of low
life, or rather of life among the poor, for the play turns upon the loss of the
woman's needle with which she had been mending her goodman's trousers.
It was a great loss to one in her position, and the search was long. The
needle was at last found by the husband himself, who sat down upon it, for it
was in the patch on which the gammer had been at work ! In this comedy
occurs the song, " Jolly good ale and old," of which the following is a stanza, —

** I cannot eat bat little meat*
My stomach is not good :
But sure I think that I can drink

With him that wears a hood.*
Though I go bare, take ye no care,

I nothing am a-cold :
I stuff my skin so (ull within

Of joUy good ale and old.
Back and side go bare, go bare ;

Both foot and hand go cold ;
But, belly, God send thee good ale enough,

Whether it be new or old '. "
* This is one sample of the satire aimed at the charchman, always pronuntnt b early English works.

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The next step in the progress of the English drama was the production of a
tragedy. It was taken in 1561, by two young members of the inner temple,
Thomas Norton, — translator of the " Institutes" of Calvin, and contributor to
the version of the Psalms collected by Sternhold and Hopkins, — and Thomas
Sackville, afterwards Lord Buckhurst, the principal contributor to the ** Mir-
ror for Magistrates," which, Warton says, enriched the stores and extended
the limits of our drama. " Gorboduc," or ** Ferrex and Porrex," is the title
under which this production is known. It is thus outlined by Warton.

** Gorboduc, a King of Britain about six hundred years before Christ, made
in his lifetime a division of his kingdom to his sons Ferrex and Porrex. These
two young princes within five years quarreled for universal sovereignty. A
civil war ensued, and Porrex slew his elder brother Ferrex. Their mother,
Viden, who loved Ferrex best, revenged his death by entering Porrex's cham-
ber in the night, and murdering him in his sleep. The people, exasperated at
the cruelty and treachery of this murder, rose in rebellion, and killed both
Viden and Gorboduc. The nobility then assembled, collected an army and
destroyed the rebels. An intestine war commenced between the chief lords.
The succession to the crown became uncertain and arbitrary for want of the
lineal royal issue ; and the country, destitute of a king, and wasted by domes-
tic slaughter, was reduced to a state of the most miserable desolation."

This bloody plot is but the skeleton on which was put a most perfunc-
tory dramatization of the story of the old chronicles. No new characters nor
actions were introduced. A dumb show ushered in each act, in which was
shadowed by an allegorical representation the matter which was to follow.
The dumb show before the fourth act was as follows :

" First, the music of hautboys began to play, during which there came from
under the stage, as though out of hell, three furies, Alecto, Megera, Ctesiphone
(Tisiphone), clad in black garments sprinkled with blood and flames, their
bodies girt with snakes, their heads spread with serpents instead of hair, the
one bearing in her hand a snake, the other a whip, and the third a firebrand :
each driving before them a king and a queen, which, moved by furies, un-
naturally had slain their own children. The names of the kings and queens
were these : Tantalus, Medea, Athamas, I no, Cambises, Althea. After that
the furies and these had passed about the stage thrice, they departed and then
the music ceased. Hereby was signified the unnatural murders to follow ;
that is to say, Porrex slain by his own mother ; and of King Gorboduc and
Queen Viden killed by their own subjects." The story of the act, it is need-
less to state, was not so distinctly told as to render the subsequdht scenes in
the least less fresh. The play is blank verse, carefully finished, but tiresome
from the fact that the sentences almost always end with the line. It is defi-
cient in life, sentiment and passion.

After the appearance of Gorboduc the poets were attracted to the classical

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drama, and the Phcenissa of Euripides was put into English by George
Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh, in 1566. It was called " Jocasta," and
great liberties were taken with the Greek, many passages being added, some
omitted, and others transposed. Among the added passages is an ode to G>n-
cord, by Kinwelmersh, beginning, —

' O blissful Concord, bred in sacred breast
Of Him that guides the restless, rolling sky.
That to the earth for man's assured rest
From height of heavens vouchsafest down to fly I
In Thee alone the mighty power doth lie,
With accord to keep the frowning stars
And every planet else from hurtful wars."

In 1581, ten tragedies by Seneca were published in a volume, though they
had been translated at different times and by different poets, and many other
plays translated from the classical authors and based upon history had by that
time appeared. The theatre had outgrown the booths and scaffolds, and had
a home of its own. The first licensed theatre in London was probably the
Blackfriars,* opened in 1576, when Shakespeare was twelve years old, though
it is said that the Globe Theatre was licensed in 1574. The Globe was un-
questionably the more celebrated, and was called afterwards, ** Shakespeare's
Globe Theatre." So popular had this style of amusement become that at the
commencement of the great dramatist's career, it is said, there were five pub-
lic theatres and some private establishments, in which two hundred players
acted ; and that more than two hundred plays were produced within twelve
years at the end of the century.

Most of the early theatres were erected on the south side of the river
Thames, in order to be without the jurisdiction of the city of London. They
were built of wood, and retained traces of their development from the platforms
erected in the inn-yards. As in the yard, there was no covering except over
the stage ; (the " parterre " of the French theatre reminds us that the lower
seats were actually on the ground) and the galleries corresponded to the
galleries that ran around the court of the inn. The floor of the stage was
strewn with rushes for want of carpet, just as the floors of the houses were at
that time. The performances began at three o'clock, after three " flourishes "
of trumpets, a flag being displayed from the roof at the same time. The place
at which the scene was laid was made clear by means of placards, just as the
characters themselves had previously been marked with their names, but a bed

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furnished the actors opportunity for their entrances and exits, and a rude wall
gave Juliet a place from which she could speak to Romeo, or the men of
Angiers to the besieging English outside of their walls. Angels, devils,
ghosts, and a few other characters were provided with costumes sup-
posed to be appropriate to them. The audiences were uncritical in these
matters. It should be understood, in view of the grossness of some of the
plays, that not only were the women's parts taken by boys or young men, but
it was not considered proper for ladies to be present at the public representa-
tions. At the end -of the performance the clown or buffoon recited a rhymed
medley called a jig, in which public men or events were often ingeniously
satirized^ Admission to the gallery was two-pence and to the " rooms " one
shilling. Probably the cost of a place on the ground was still less. Some-
times when a deep tragedy was to be performed the entire stage was hung
with black. Seats were sometimes furnished for distinguished persons on the
stage itself, and a custom arose of going upon the stage during the interval be-
tween the acts which became annoying, for those who desired to make them-
selves conspicuous for any cause often sat there, smoking and disturbing the

The history of the English drama is naturally divided into two parts, for
during the ascendency of the Puritans the theatres were closed for a number
of years, and after the Restoration the moral tone of play-writers was as low as
that of the court which supported them. Shakespeare is not only the greatest
dramatist of his time, but of all time, and the greatest literary character that
the world has yet produced. He found the drama little advanced beyond the
stage to which we have brought it in our outline of its progress, and he raised
it to the highest point that it has ever reached. He had no scenery and but
the roughest contrivances for the display of the productions of his wonderful
genius, and yet he gave us plays which test to the utmost all the properties
and facilities of the most perfect theatre of the nineteenth century. His
genius stands alone, for his contemporaries do not approach him in any of
the elements that make his character so surpassingly brilliant.

The greatest of the contemporaries of Shakespeare was Christopher Mar-

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TkmtdiTt and enUr devils.

" O soal, be changed into small water drops,
And fall into the ocean ; ne'er be found.
O mercy. Heaven, look not so fierce on Bie.
Adders and serpents, let me breathe awhile :
Ugly hell, gape not ; come not, Lucifer :
I'll bum my books : O Mephistophilis ! " (Exit.)

Besides this, Marlowe wrote the tragedies of Edward //., The yew of
MaltOy and Tamburlaine, which show great genius, but an unregulated imagi-

Other contemporaries of Marlowe were John Lily, author of " Euphues,"
(who wrote classical plays showing much affected wit, though his " Endymion "
has been highly praised) ; George Peele, (whose best piece is entitled " David
and Bethsabe ") a fellow-actor of Shakespeare ; Thomas Kyd, (author of
" Hieronimo," and " The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is mad again ") ;
Thomas Nash, a satirist, (audior of ^ comedy entitled ** Summer's Last Will
and Testament ") ; Thomas Greene, (author of the tract " A Groat's Worth of
Wit," in which he refers to Shakespeare as having " a tiger's heart wrapt in a
player's hide,") and Thomas Lodge, a poor dramatist, who wrote " A Looking-
Glass for London and England," intended as a defence of the stage against the
attacks of the Puritans.

These need not detain us, but a quotation fh)m Nash will help us in getting
a view of literary life at the time.

" Men of art," he says, " must seek alms of Cormorants, and those that de-
serve best be kept under by Dunces, who count it a policy to keep them bare,

because they should follow their books the better For my part

I do challenge no praise of learning to myself, yet have I worn a gown in the
University ; but this I dare presume, that if any Maecenas bind me to him by
his bounty, or extend some sound liberality to me worth the speaking of, I will
do him as much honor as any poet of my beardless years shall in England.
... On the contrary side, if I be evil entreated, or sent away with a flea in
mine ear, let him look that I'll rail on him soundly, not for an hour or a day,
while the injury is fresh in my memory, but in some elaborate polished poem,
which I will leave to the world when I am dead, to be. a living image to all
ages of his beggarly parsimony and ignorant illiberality : and let him not,
whatsoever he be, treasure the weight of my words by this book, where I write
quidquid in buccam ventret, (whatever comes into my mouth,) as fast as my
hand can trot ; but I have terms, if I be vexed, laid in steep in aquafortis and
gunpowder, that shall rattle through the skies, and make an earthquake in a
peasant's ears." This occurs in his " Pierce Pennilesse," a severe autobio-
graphical satire on the vices of the age, which Nash said described "the over-
spreading of vice and suppression of virtue," "plentifully interlaced with
variable delights, and pathetically intermixed with conceipted reproofs." The

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passage is characteristic of the careless, jovial and dissipated literary man of
the period, that Nash was.

We have now traced, briefly it is true, the progress of the English drama to
the time of Shakespeare. In him the spirit of the age flowered, but he was
not alone. There was Ben Jonson, and after him, Beaumont and Fletcher,
George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, John
Marston, Philip Massinger, John Ford and Thomas Heywood, but they were
each in his degree, far below Shakespeare. Most of their productions have
^en into merited neglect.

It is not necessary for the present purpose to follow the history of the drama
through the two centuries after Shakespeare. The decadence that marks the
restoration period has already been mentioned. It has been sketched with
masterly strokes by Lord Macaulay, and the influence of the Puritans upon
the drama has been pleasantly presented in an essay * by the late Charles
Kingsley, which is remarkable for its appreciative spirit in regard to those with
whom he had little doctrinal sympathy.

* ** Plays and Puritans," North British Review, No. XLIX.

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Shakespeare was buried in the parish church at Stratford. Within a few
years after his death a bust of the poet was erected in the church. The face
was probably modelled from a cast taken after death. It was originally colored
— the eyes hazel, the hair and beard auburn. This and the portrait engraved
by Droeshouty which is prefixed to the First Folio, 1623, are the only certain
likenesses of Shakespeare which remain to us. But that known as the
Chandos portrait, though differing in some important particulars from the other
portraits, has by many persons been considered genuine ; and there exists a
death-mask — named, from a supposed former owner, the Kesselstadt death-
mask — which bears the date 161 6, and which may be the original cast from
the dead poet's face. It exhibits a head of remarkable proportions, and a face
of great power and refinement. The grave in the parish church at Stratford is
covered by a flat stone, bearing an inscription attributed to Shakespeare him-



Ward's famous bronze statue of Shakespeare* stands in the Central Park,
New York. It is in the southern or " Lower" portion of the Park, in the tract
called The Mall, where there is a broad walk, with two rows of American elms
on each side. The sculptor, John Quincy Adams Ward, was born at Urbana,
Ohio, June 29th, 1830. His boyhood was passed on a farm ; but from a very
early period he manifested a great love for art In 1874 he was chosen
President of the American National Academy of Design. His statue is the
noblest work of the kind of which Shakespeare is the subject

See Frondapiece.


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The best and easiest mode of reviewing Shakespeare's dramas will be to
arrange them in classes. This, it must be owned, is merely a makeshift :
several critics have declared that all Shakespeare's pieces substantially belong
to the same species, although sometimes one ingredient, sometimes another,
the musical or the characteristical, the invention of the wonderful or the imi-
tation of the real, the pathetic or the comic, seriousness or irony, may pre-
ponderate in the mixture. Shakespeare himself, it would appear, did but
laugh at the petty endeavors of critics to find out divisions and sub-divisions
of sepcies, and to hedge in what had been so s^arated with the most anxious
care ; thus the pedantic Polonius in Hamlet commends the players for their
knowledge of " tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-
pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical, historical-pastoral, scene-un-
dividable, or poem unlimited." On another occasion he ridicules the limita-
tion of Tragedy to an unfortunate catastrophe :

*' And tragka], my noble lords, it b ;
For Pyramus therein doth kill himself.^'

However the division into Comedies^ Tragedies^ and Historical Dramas ^ ac-
cording to the usual practice, may in some measure be adopted, if we do not
lose sight of the transitions and affinities. The subjects of the comedies are
generally taken from novels. They are romantic love tales ; none are altogether
confined to the sphere of common or domestic relations. All of them possess
poetical ornament ; some of them run into the wonderful or t^e pathetic.
With these two of his most famous tragedies are connected by an immediate
link, Romeo and Juliet and Othello; both true novels, and composed on the
same principles. In many of the historical plays a considerable space is occu-
pied by the comic characters and scenes ; others are serious throughout, and
leave behind a tragical impression. The essential circumstance by which they
are distinguished is, that the plot bears reference to a poetical and national in-
terest. This is not equally the case in Hamlet^ Lear, and Macbeth; and
• therefore it is that we do not include these tragedies among the historical
pieces, though the first is founded on an old northern, the second on a national


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tradition ; and the third comes even within the era of Scottish history, after
it ceased to be fabulous.

Among the comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona^ The Taming of the
Shrew^* and The Comedy of Errors^ bear many traces of an early origin.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona f paints the irresolution of love, and its in-
fidelity to friendship, pleasantly enough, but in some degree superficially, we
might almost say with the levity of mind which a passion suddenly entertained,
and as suddenly given up, presupposes. The faithless lover is at last, on ac-
count of a very ambiguous repentance, forgiven without much difficulty by his
first mistress ; for the more serious part, — the premeditated flight of the
daughter of a Prince, the capture of her father along with herself by a band of
robbers, of which one of the Two Gentlemen, the betrayed and banished
friend, has been against his will elected captain, — for all this a peaceful solu-
tion is soon found. It is as if the course of the world was obliged to accommo-
date itself to a transient youthful caprice, called love. Julia, who accompanies
her faithless lover in the disguise of a page, is, as it were, a light sketch of the
tender female figures of a Viola and an Imogen, who, in the latter pieces of
Shakespeare, leave their hom| in similar disguises on love adventures, and to
whom a peculiar charm is communicated by the display of the most virginly
modesty in their hazardous and problematical situation.

The Comedy of Errors % is the subject of the Mencechmi of Plautus, entirely
recast and enriched with new developments. Of all the works of Shakespeare
this is the only example of imitation of, or borrowing from, the ancients. To
the two twin brothers of the same name are added two slaves, also twins,
impossible to be distinguished from each other, and of the same name. The
improbability becomes by this means doubled : but when once we have lent
ourselves to the first, which certainly borders on the incredible, we shall not
perhaps be disposed to cavil at the second ; and if the spectator is to be enter-
tained by mere perplexities, they cannot be too much varied. In such pieces
we must, to give to the senses at least an appearance of truth, always pre-sup-
pose that the parts by which the misunderstandings are occasioned are played
with masks, and this the poet no doubt observed. I cannot acquiesce in the
censure that the discovery is too long deferred : so long as novelty and interest
are possessed by the perplexing incidents, there is no need to be in dread of
wearisomeness. And this is really the case here : matters are carried so far
that one of the two brothers is first arrested for debt, then confined as a
lunatic, and the other is forced to take refuge in a sanctuary to save his life.
In a subject of this description it is impossible to steer clear of all sorts of low
circumstances, abusive language, and blows ; Shakespeare has, however,
endeavored to ennoble it in every possible way. A couple of scenes, dedicated

• ProfeMor Dowden classes this with the " Later Comedy."

t See page 19. t See page 389.

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to Jealousy and love, interrupt the course of perplexities which are solely occa-
sioned by the illusion of the external senses. A greater solemnity is given to
the discovery, from the Prince presiding, and from the re-union of the long-
separated parents of the twins who are still alive. The exposition by which
the spectators are previously instructed while the characters themselves are
still involved in ignorance, and which Plautus artlessly conveys in a prologue,
is here masterly introduced in an aflfecting narrative by the father. In short,
this is perhaps the best of all written or possible Menoechmi ; and if the piece
be inferior in worth to other pieces of Shakespeare, it is merely because
nothing more could be made of the materials.

The Taming of the Shrew* has the air of an Italian comedy; and indeed
the love intrigue, which constitutes the main part of it, is derived mediately or
immediately from a piece of Ariosto. The characters and passions are lightly
sketched ; the intrigue is introduced without much preparation, and in its
rapid progress impeded by no sort of diflficulties ; while, in the manner in
which Petruchio, though previously cautioned as to Katherine, still encounters
the risks in marrying her, and contrives to tame her — in all this the character
and peculiar humor of the English are distinctiv visible. The colors are laid
on somewhat coarsely, but the ground is good. That the obstinacy of a young
and untamed girl, possessed of none of the attractions of her sex, and neither
supported by bodily nor mental strength, must soon yield to the still rougher
and more capricious but assumed self-will of a man : such a lesson can only
be taught on the stage with all the perspicuity of a proverb.

The prelude is still more remarkable than the play itself: a drunken tinker,
removed in his sleep to a palace, where he is deceived into the belief of being
a nobleman. The invention, however, is not Shakespeare's. Holberg has
handled the same subject in a masterly manner, and with inimitable truth ;
but he has spun it out to five acts, for which such material is hardly sufficient.
He probably did not borrow from the English dramatist, but like him took the
hint from a popular story. There are several comic motives of this descrip-
tion, which go back to a very remote age, without ever becoming antiquated.
Here, as well as everywhere else, Shakespeare has proved himself a great
poet : the whole is merely a slight sketch, but in elegance and delicate pro-
priety it will hardly ever be excelled. Neither has he overlooked the irony
which the subject naturally suggested : the great lord, who is driven by idle-
ness and ennui to deceive a poor drunkard, can make no better use of his
situation than the latter, who every moment relapses into his vulgar habits.
The last half of this prelude, that in which the tinker, in his new state, again
drinks himself out of his senses, and is transformed in his sleep into his
' oonditiony is from some accident or other, lost It ought to have fol-

* See page 215.

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lowed at the end of the larger piece. The occasional remarks of the tinker,
during the course of the representation of the comedy, might have been impro-
visatory ; but it is hardly credible that Shakespeare should have trusted to the
momentary suggestions of the players, whom he did not hold in high estima-

Online LibraryWilliam Michael Rossetti William ShakespeareThe complete works of Shakespeare: With a critical biography → online text (page 5 of 224)